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Santa Monica Can Sue for Airport Control, Appellate Court Rules
Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
Roque & Mark Real Estate
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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

May 17, 2016 -- Local municipal officials’ quest to take control of Santa Monica Airport received a boost Monday when a three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the City could sue the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over this issue.

The appellate panel’s ruling overturned the decision made two years ago by federal Judge John F. Walter that the City’s time to sue the FAA had run out in the late 1950s (“Judge Tosses Santa Monica Lawsuit Against FAA,” February 12, 2014).

The case was remanded back to the federal district court for trial.

“This good news brings us one step closer to regaining control of City land now occupied by the Santa Monica Airport, and to keeping our community healthy and safe,” Mayor Tony Vazquez said in a statement.

“Now that the FAA’s statute of limitations argument has been thrown out, the case will finally go to trial on the merits of our claims," Vazquez said. "This is what we’ve pushed for all along, and we remain totally committed to establishing control of this land and using it in service to the whole community.”

While the mayor’s statement alludes to the possibility of the airport being closed or at least partially closed, another statement released by the anti-airport activist group Airport2Park Foundation was more direct.

“[This was] a major step toward confirming that Santa Monica is entitled to close the airport and turn it into a park,” foundation president Neil Carrey said in a statement.

“The foundation is confident that the facts will show that the airport land, most of which was purchased with a park bond in the 1920s, has always been owned by the City of Santa Monica for the benefit of its residents, and that there is nothing in the legal record that will prevent Santa Monica from closing the airport.”

The Lookout called the FAA to get the agency's reaction to the ruling. Spokesman Ian Gregor said, “We are reviewing the decision.”

The opinion issued by the 9th Circuit panel determined the issue of whether the City had run out of time to sue the FAA was “inextricably intertwined” with the City’s allegation in the lawsuit that it had not lost control of the airport, so it could not be used as a reason to dismiss the suit.

Judge Walter had determined two years ago that the City knew the FAA had claimed a stake in the property when it returned control of the airport to Santa Monica after World War II. The City has 12 years to challenge this claim, and didn’t, Walter said.

The appellate panel looked at it differently.

“Given the language in the instrument of transfer, the parties’ alleged property interests at the time of the original leases, and evidence of the parties’ conduct, the question of whether the City had ‘notice’ of the United States’ claim of a perpetual reversionary interest in the airport land is inextricably intertwined with the ultimate scope and validity of that claim,” the opinion states.

The City filed its lawsuit claiming it had full control of the airport in 2013. With the latest decision, it appears Santa Monica City attorneys will have the opportunity to make this argument in front of a federal judge.

Even if the lawsuit is able to go forward, any decision that is made will likely be appealed by the losing party.

Also, it is just one (although a major one) of many legal battles between the City and the FAA as well as other aviation interests in the ongoing dispute about the future of the Santa Monica Airport property.

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